Wind farm operator fined $1 million for breaching national energy rules before SA statewide blackout
22nd December, 2020
By court reporter Meagan Dillon, ABC News
A South Australian wind farm operator has been fined $1 million for contravening national electricity rules in the three years leading up to the 2016 statewide blackout.
- The company accepted it failed to protect against “abnormal voltage”
- The court found the breach of national energy rules was not deliberate
- The company was also ordered to pay $100,000 in court costs
The Australian Energy Regulator (AER) launched legal action against Snowtown Wind Farm Stage 2 (SWF2) last year, after turbines shut down unexpectedly.
The company was accused of supplying electricity to the grid despite not having protection system settings approved by the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO).
According to the judgement, SWF2 was a wholly owned subsidiary of Trustpower Limited, a publicly listed New Zealand power company, at the relevant time.
The AER also launched legal action against three other wind farms — Hornsdale, Pacific Hydro’s Clement’s Gap and AGL’s Hallett farms — but the outcomes of those cases have yet to be determined.
The blackout occurred on September 28, 2016, when extreme weather, described at the time as “twin tornadoes”, caused major damage to electricity infrastructure, knocking down huge transmission lines.
The AER said a subsequent loss of wind generation then triggered the blackout, which left 850,000 customers without power.
SWF2 accepted the $1 million penalty for failing to adequately protect its wind farm from “abnormal voltage”.
Justice Richard White said the contravention was “not deliberate” and the company “took prompt steps to rectify the situation”.
The Federal Court today ordered the company — which has 90 wind turbines in SA’s mid north — to implement a compliance program and hire an independent “compliance expert” to ensure it abides by the rules in the future.
The expert will then provide a written compliance report to the court after six months.
Justice White said the wind farm had low-voltage protection systems fitted to each of its turbines to protect “against abnormal voltage excursion of the power system” — but they were set at a lower threshold than required by the National Electricity Rules (NER).
“The ability of wind farm turbines to continue operating (‘to ride through’) periods of voltage fluctuations … is an important requirement for their connection to the power system in the NEM (National Electricity Market),” he wrote in his judgement.
“That feature reduces the ability of voltage disturbances arising from faults and other occurrences to cause cascading failures in the system and thereby enhances the ability of AEMO to maintain ‘power system security’ and, in particular, to avoid blackouts.”
He said the NER “imposes an obligation” on generators of electricity, such as SWF2, to have protective systems in place to deal with episodes of abnormal voltage in the power system.
“The purpose of such systems is to ensure that the generating units remain in continuous operation during specified disturbances and thereby to assist AEMO in maintaining power system security,” he said.
“On 28 September 2016, six under-voltage disturbances occurred on the power system within a period of approximately 90 seconds.
“In response to the sixth under-voltage disturbance, the [low-voltage protection system] was activated on 34 of the 37 turbines then in service, with the consequence that they shut down and ceased to supply active power to the power system.
“This was associated with the widespread electricity blackout which occurred in South Australia on that day.”
Justice White ordered SWF2 to pay the “Commonwealth of Australia a pecuniary penalty of $1 million in respect of the contravention”.
He also ordered SWF2 to pay the AER’s court costs of $100,000.